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    Middle East
     Feb 4, 2011

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Good-bye, Mr Insubordination
By Peter Lee

Stuart Levey, the United States official in charge of unilateral financial sanctions against Iran and North Korea, is resigning as Assistant Secretary of State for the Office of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence.

Levey was apparently fondly regarded in the Obama White House as a key player in the "smart power" strategy, and highly regarded by hardline and pro-Israel groups for his relentless attack on the international banking and financial relationships of the Pyongyang and Tehran regimes.

After Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Levey, 47, was the highest-level holdover from the George W Bush administration. His intention to resign was announced in January after six years

in the job. The White House has nominated Levey's deputy, David Cohen, to replace him.

President Obama's National Security Advisor for Counter-terrorism, Tom Donilon, told Foreign Policy:
"Stuart designed and executed innovative financial strategies for targeting terrorists, proliferators, and other illicit actors, and built an international consensus around the use of targeted sanctions as an effective means of combating threats, pressuring regimes, and safeguarding the financial system," Donilon said.
Senator Joe Lieberman also piled on the praise:
"Indeed, what David Petraeus has done for counter-insurgency warfare, Stuart Levey has done for economic warfare - completely rewriting the book on the subject," Lieberman said." [1]
When examined more closely, the characteristic feature of Levey's tenure appears to be failure - and his unexplained involvement in one of the more remarkable instances of insubordination in the history of the executive branch of the US government.

However, this insubordination may not have been an instance of Levey "going rogue". Instead, it may have reflected a secret policy and unspoken objectives of the United States concerning North Korea policy - and support for a pro-American regime in Seoul - that both the Bush and Obama administrations share.

The Treasury Department's Office of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence (OTFI), with Levey as its chief, was set up after 9/11 in an effort to track, impede and prevent the movement of funds used by terrorists.
OTFI derived its power and utility from a provision, Section 311, inserted into the Patriot Act by John Kerry. Section 311 empowered the Treasury Department to sever banks deemed insufficient in financial reporting transparency (and therefore potentially obscuring the movement of terrorist funding) from the US financial system.

If OTFI won major victories related to its original mandate, they have gone unrecorded. A March 2008 article by Josh Meyer in the Los Angeles Times reported that terrorist funding was too minute and its channels too informal for OTFI to detect, calling into question the efficacy of the expensive, intrusive and highly-touted strategy. [2]

In a classic case of mission creep, OTFI was repurposed to serve as an instrument of the unilateral foreign policy of the George W Bush administration in its efforts to isolate, pressure and possibly destabilize Iran and North Korea.

United States sanctions already blocked American firms from dealing with Iran and North Korea. For sanctions to "bite" they had to extend to the Chinese, European and Asian banks that dealt routinely with the two nations - and bypass the governments that were unenthusiastic about the US strategy and its economic cost.
OTFI systematically and energetically contacted foreign banks to convince them to sever ties with Tehran and Pyongyang on the grounds that Iranian and North Korean duplicity and lack of transparency put the banks at risk of unwittingly abetting proliferation, terrorist and criminal activities - and severance from the US financial system by Treasury fiat.

Many banks apparently acquiesced. Some did not.

Especially Chinese banks, their resistance encouraged by their economic interest, buttressed by the diplomatic support the Chinese government was giving to Pyongyang and Tehran in defiance of the United States.

Kill chicken, scare monkey
In 2005, the Bush administration's Working Group on North Korea decided to take stronger measures to dissuade China from providing North Korea access to the world financial system.

The chosen target was Banco Delta Asia (BDA), a small bank headquartered in Macau that transacted business with North Korea.

The chosen measure was a ruling by the Treasury Department's Office of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence under Section 311, designating BDA as "a bank of money laundering concern", severing it from the US financial system pending an investigation and final ruling on its fate.

There was an immediate run on the bank. It was taken into receivership by the Macanese monetary authority, which froze the North Korea-related accounts.

The head of the working group, David Asher, subsequently testified to the US Congress that the designation was a matter of "killing the chicken to scare the monkeys", ie using the example of BDA to demonstrate to Chinese banks what the US could do if they didn't toe the line on North Korea.

BDA was a particularly unlucky and inappropriate chicken, chosen perhaps because its chairman, Stanley Au, was a delegate to the Chinese People's Consultative Congress, a talking shop organized by the Chinese government to give prominence to selected overseas and local Chinese worthies.

As a subsequent investigation by Ernst & Young determined, BDA was innocent of the most dire charge against it: laundering of counterfeit US currency - the dreaded Supernote - for North Korea.
When the OTFI designation shut it down, BDA was holding $24 million in around 50 North Korea-related deposits. Half of this amount was irreproachable: accounts of British-American Tobacco's North Korea joint venture, and Daedong Credit Bank, a joint venture trying to encourage foreign investment in the North.

In United States policy circles, the BDA saga is vaguely remembered in glowing but fuzzy terms.

An ex-Treasury functionary, Juan Carlos Zarote wrote an op-ed for the LA Times in April 2009:
In September 2005, as part of a strategic pressure campaign, the Treasury Department ordered US financial institutions to close correspondent accounts for a private bank in Macau - Banco Delta Asia. This bank was facilitating money laundering, proliferation and counterfeiting on behalf of the North Korean regime.

The regulation cut the bank off from the US financial system. More important, the unilateral regulation unleashed the global financial furies against North Korea...

This hurt Pyongyang. The North Korean regime scrambled to regain access to money and accounts around the world while trying to undo the official damage done to its reputation in the international financial community. Key state actors, including China, had no incentive to block the full effect of the market reaction. On the contrary, they did not want their banks or financial reputations caught up in the taint of North Korea's illicit financial activity.

This pressure became the primary leverage for the United States to press for North Korea's return to the six-party negotiating table. Once the six-party talks reassembled, the financial pressure campaign against North Korea ended, resulting in a loosening of the financial squeeze. [3]
For the benefit of readers perhaps with a stronger grasp of cause and effect than Zarote, the BDA affair actually unfolded as follows:

  • November 2005 - US Treasury designation of BDA.
  • February 2006 - North Korea announces it will not return to talks until sanctions lifted.
  • April 2006 - North Korea offers to resume talks if the US releases recently frozen North Korean financial assets held in BDA. The US refuses.
  • October 9, 2006 - North Korea detonates a nuclear device.
  • 31 October, 2006 - Six-party talks resume under Chinese auspices.
  • February 13, 2007 - US chief negotiator Christopher Hill announced that all of the $25 million in funds belonging to the North Koreans in Banco Delta Asia that had been frozen were being unfrozen to reciprocate the positive steps the North Koreans have taken toward freezing their Yongbyon nuclear reactor and readmitting inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), with a future goal toward total nuclear disarmament of the Korean Peninsula.

    In other words, and contra to Zarote's assertion, the BDA designation drove North Korea away from the talks, not toward it. It was the bomb, not OTFI, that brought the six parties back together.

    In fact, the whole BDA designation looks less like a negotiating strategy than a means of torpedoing the six-party talks, which were puttering along with their usual combination of duplicity, venality, futility and sunny optimism a mere two months before Levey dropped his bombshell.
    OTFI's subsequent march of folly concerning the funds frozen at BDA indicates that some peculiar agenda was in motion - and it wasn't the stated US policy.

    As noted above, as part of the deal for the restoration of the six-party talks was the unfreezing of the $25 million at BDA. Once again, a simple timeline will illustrate the dynamic at work::
  • February 13, 2007 - Christopher Hill announces BDA funds will be "resolved" within 30 days. North Korea has 60 days to shut down its reactor at Yongbyeon.
  • March 14, 2007 - OTFI waits until the very last day of the 30-day period to announce its final ruling on BDA (following an investigation of 18 months). It's a scorched earth ruling against BDA, severing it from the US banking system. No bank is willing to handle the transfer of the money from BDA to North Korea for risk of designation as handler of tainted funds. The United States has no choice but to miss the deadline.
  • March 22, 2007 - The Financial Times reports that Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson had to overrule Stuart Levey and order the return of all the BDA funds to North Korea.
  • North Koreans walk out of talks in Beijing because the BDA money hasn't shown up.
  • April 5, 2007 State Department announces a "pathway" has been established for the return of the funds.
  • May 16, 2007 - Washington Post reports that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has asked Wachovia Bank to handle the remittance of the $25 million. But...
    The Treasury Department has not been involved in the effort to find a financial institution to handle the money, leaving the search to the State Department. But Treasury would need to grant significant waivers, such as special permission for a US bank to deal with Banco Delta Asia. One senior US official said that it is not clear "what universe of waivers" would be needed to ease the bank's concerns that it would not be putting its reputation at risk.
  • May 18, 2007 - In a Wall Street Journal op-ed, John Bolton alleges that the State Department has concluded a secret agreement with Pyongyang to allow North Korea to use Wachovia to evade US sanctions and access the world financial system.

    Continued 1 2  

  • Timing key as US stir-fries sanctionss
    (Aug 11, '10)

    China in America's sanctions crosshairs
    (Jun 24, '11)



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